Home Buses MTA eyeing April ’13 for city-wide BusTime rollout

MTA eyeing April ’13 for city-wide BusTime rollout

by Benjamin Kabak

Bus riders throughout the five boroughs will enjoy real-time bus tracking by early 2013.

While Londoners can now track their city’s buses, New York City isn’t too far behind. According to MTA documents released this week, if all goes according to plan, the MTA’s BusTime system, in use in Brooklyn and nearly ready on Staten Island, will be available city-wide by April of 2013. It could revolutionize the way New Yorkers use the bus system.

For the past few years, as surface travel has grown slower and bus service less frequent, the MTA has noted a marked decrease in bus ridership. According to numbers released this week by Transit, average weekday bus ridership in August was below 2.3 million for the first time in years. Although some of that decline was due to the total shutdown of the transit system in advance of Hurricane Irene, the bus system has not enjoyed an increase in ridership in years.

We could spend hours debating the reasons for the declining bus ridership. The vehicles are slow and uncomfortable. They don’t run on or close to the MTA’s posted schedules. Facing congestion and long boarding lines, crosstown trips in Manhattan, in particular, are often slower than walking. It’s no coincidence that as Select Bus Service improvements are rolled out across the city, bus ridership along those lines are among the highest around.

One of the key drivers behind the lack of faith in the city’s bus service concerns reliability. Although the authority posts schedules, buses come when they feel like it, often in bunches and rarely on time. Bus tracking projects, similar to the ones in place along 34th St. in Manhttan and the B63 route in Brooklyn, take the surprise out of bus travel and better allow riders to program their trips. If all goes according to plan, every bus will be equipped with such a tracking system by April of 2013, and riding the bus in New York City should become convenient again.

According to the presentation (found in the Capital Program Oversight Committee materials), the MTA is moving forward aggressively with plans to outfit the entire bus fleet with the tracking software. It will be activated in all 830 Staten Island buses by December of this year, and the project is coming in within the allocated budget. The city-wide rollout will begin next year.

Already, the project in Brooklyn, according to the MTA, is drawing high praise. The authority reports 1500 daily requests each day, and 94 percent of current users want to see it available through the city. I wonder what the other six percent want, but I digress. A “small percentage” of users find the text messaging function or website interface “difficult to use.”

For Staten Island, meanwhile, the project has been exceedingly simple to introduce. The authority awarded three contracts — one for on-bus hardware, one for back-office software and one for text message services — and installation began on the first of this month. Once the service is nearly ready, the MTA will begin a publicity blitz to prepare Staten Islanders for bus tracking.

Meanwhile, this project has an added benefit in that it will help drive forward the plan to replace MetroCards with a smart card tap-and-go payment system. The project was budgeted with $6.9 million from the New Fare Payment System initiative, and the $1.2 million in technology the MTA purchased for Staten Island’s bus tracking system will work with the new fare system as well. Furthermore, they’ve locked in software development through the city for $7.5 million, a total that includes development and six years of maintenance and hosting services. All in all, that’s not a bad deal.

As an information geek and transit advocate, I’m excited for the potential that BusTime should realize. If riders of any bus route can easily look up how far away the next bus is, they can better plan travel of all kinds. It should encourage people to use the buses as a way to supplement their subway rides, and it will take the sheer mystery out of riding the bus. Eliminating both the surprise of the schedule and the frustrating aspects of the wait should only increase customer satisfaction and use.

The buses have had a tough go of it lately, but things are starting to look up. Now if only we could bring a pre-boarding fare payment system to the entire bus network as well.

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40 comments

Mike October 24, 2011 - 1:14 am

I’m glad this data is/will be open, but why isn’t CBTC train position data open?

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Andrew October 24, 2011 - 6:11 am

Or, even more important (since it covers much more territory, including parts of the city where people have multiple routing options), ATS-A train position data?

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John-2 October 24, 2011 - 7:07 am

It will partially solve the problem — starting location-to-bus moves will be a lot easier to time (and be made less annoying), but for people who do bus-to-subway commutes, there will still be the problem on the reverse commute of being dropped off at your subway stop and having to wait for the (less-frequently run) bus to arrive.

You’ll have a better idea when it’s coming via BusTime, but if the app says your bus is 10 minutes away when you come out of the subway, there’s nothing you can do about it but kill time at the stop.

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Kid Twist October 24, 2011 - 9:01 am

My folks live 10 blocks from a subway station. With this, I’ll know whether to walk or wait for the bus when I visit them.

For people who don’t have the option of walking, this lets them know if they have time to pop into a store or run a quick errand before the bus shows up.

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Kai B October 24, 2011 - 10:11 am

Yep, a 10-minute wait is great for grabbing a slice of pizza.

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Andrew October 24, 2011 - 10:51 pm

If you have to transfer to a bus to reach your destination, but you have multiple options for the second leg, you can check how far away the bus is as you approach the first transfer point (assuming you have a cell phone signal). If it’s coming soon, you can transfer there; if it’s a good distance away, you can wait until the second transfer point.

This is especially useful if the first transfer point is to an infrequent bus that saves you time if you don’t have a long wait, while the second transfer point is to a frequent bus that takes longer to reach your destination. (Not that I can think of any examples off the top of my head, but I’m sure they exist.)

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chris October 25, 2011 - 10:33 am

But who cares? you KNOW the bus is coming! You won’t have that anxiety of “should I walk or should I wait?” You can make that choice if you want to.

This will change everything.

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Larry Littlefield October 24, 2011 - 9:41 am

“The surprising news out of Staten Island, however, concerns cost savings. While most MTA projects blow past their budgets, this one is well under target.”

That is certainly good news. Perhaps they found a contractor who didn’t rip them off. Or perhaps this is the benefit of one failed pilot project after another, with the MTA working until it could get it right.

Or perhaps this is a result of giving up on Manhattan, where signals are blocked by buildings. Those pilots started in the hardest place first; this project started in the easiest.

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AlexB October 24, 2011 - 9:59 am

I’ve never used this service. Do you go to a website, text the MTA, or is the next bus arrival time posted at the bus stop itself?

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Kai B October 24, 2011 - 10:17 am

Website or text – though it would be nice if larger stations (at least terminals such as Coney Island) actually got a display ala Europe: http://bit.ly/qZ6SLo

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John October 24, 2011 - 12:23 pm

The text option is pretty cool, assuming it works like it has in other cities I’ve been. Each stop has a stop ID posted, and you just text in the stop ID and it will text back when the next buses arrive at that stop. For stops that serve multiple routes, it becomes somewhat more complicated, but should still work pretty well.

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BrooklynBus October 24, 2011 - 10:05 am

But the $64,000 question is will it make buses more reliable? If you know your bus is 30 or even 45 minutes away, will the MTA use the information to take steps to shorten that wait? That would be the true value of this project. If you are still stuck waiting 30 to 45 minutes for a bus, and your only choice is a livery cab or walking, the value of this project will be limited and bus ridership will continue to drop. I would like to see the MTA make a statement how they will use this information to make service more reliable.

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The Cobalt Devil October 24, 2011 - 10:18 am

Excellent point. If someone is waiting for an S40 bus on Richmond Terrace, and they find out the next one is 25 mins away, how exactly does that help them? There’s no other bus on that route, no train to catch, no taxis to hail, so basically you’ll be 100% sure you’re gonna miss your ferry instead of guessing that you MIGHT miss your ferry.

Will dispatchers use this info to put another bus in service if an earlier scheduled bus is cancelled? This happens just about every day on the S40, and if your bus doesn’t come, you’re up the proverbial creek.

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VLM October 24, 2011 - 10:20 am

Knowing is half the battle.

I agree that the MTA should use this bus data to improve service, but you’re picking one of the few areas of the city where riders have literally no other options. By and large, riders will have plenty of other options if they find out the next bus isn’t going to arrive for 20 or 30 minutes.

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BrooklynBus October 24, 2011 - 12:39 pm

I disagree that it is one of the few areas. It is the majority of bus stops. How many bus stops are there where you can just go downstairs and hop the train? Not many percentage wise. If you are at a corner where you have more than one alternative, yes you can take the other route. However, what if you are at a transfer point where you are already committed to take the second bus, you can’t very well go back to the point where you started and use that alternate path. You are stuck. Yes, knowing is helpful, but not quite half the battle. The MTA must use this information as I stated. If not, rather than bus ridership going up, knowing the bus will not come for a long time, might actually make it go down.

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AlexB October 24, 2011 - 2:13 pm

There aren’t that many stops where “you can just go downstairs and hop the train.” However, if you have to wait 30 minutes instead of the ten or so minutes you might have otherwise expected, you might prefer to walk 15 minutes to a subway or other bus. There actually are very few places in the city where a 10 minute walk won’t significantly change your transit options.

ajedrez October 24, 2011 - 10:38 am

That would help in areas east of Clove Road (since the Castleton Depot is by Jewett Avenue), but the people west of Port Richmond would be SOL (and they absolutely have no other options: They can get the S46 or S48, but they’ll miss the ferry anyway)

As far as not having other options, I guess if somebody lives halfway between Henderson Avenue and Richmond Terrace, they’ll know to walk to the S44 instead of the S40.

And for the 6% of the people, they were probably worried about the cost for something they don’t think they’ll be able to use. $1.2 million could restore a couple of routes, and if they’re in an area like Sheepshead Bay (where the only option is the B44 anyway), they’d prefer to see the money used to restore the B4.

But for everybody else, it would be beneficial. Even if you’re like me and don’t have a SmartPhone, you can probably ask somebody at the stop who does.

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The Cobalt Devil October 24, 2011 - 12:54 pm

A better bet would be to implement BusTime AND extend the S53 or S54 east along Richmond Terrace to St. George Ferry. I’m amazed that NYCT still terminates buses at Port Richmond Square, which stopped being a major shopping/ferry connection over 40 years ago.

The S54 runs the exact same route as the old R110, which used to take workers from the middle of the Island to the shipyards and factories in West Brighton during WWII. Since most of those factories were closed by 1960, I’m thinking they can tinker with the S54 and make it a more useful bus route and help alleviate crowding and provide needed service along Richmond Terrace to/from the ferry. Instead, the MTA wastes tons of $$ on “studies” and rolls out PowerPoint presentations showing what a revived North Shore Rail line would look like when all they need to do is tinker with a few bus routes. I guess adding a few buses along Richmond Terrace isn’t as sexy as a computer-generated presentation.

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Benjamin Kabak October 24, 2011 - 12:57 pm

The money for the North Shore Rail line came from SI politicians. The MTA didn’t spend a dollar of their own money on it. If you want to accuse politicians of wasting money that could otherwise go to transit service, fine, but facts are facts.

The Cobalt Devil October 24, 2011 - 1:02 pm

Fair enough Ben, though you have to admit the MTA doesn’t discourage the idea of a revived North Shore line either. And my point about extending the S53 or S54 from their historic termini, many of which were inherited from trolley routes from the 1920s, is still valid. The absolutely glacial pace of improvements to our transit system under the MTA’s aegis is simply mind-numbing.

BrooklynBus October 24, 2011 - 4:30 pm

That’s because the MTA has no intention of rerouting or creating new bus routes to better serve its riders. Their priority is to cut operating expenses by reducing bus service even if that makes bus trips more inconvenient by requiring more three bus trips. They want you to switch to the subway and not ride the bus even if that means a longer trip that takes you into parts of the city nowhere near your final destination.

The B44 SBS will provide a glut of service on Rogers Avenue diverting passengers from the B49. The MTA will then cut B49 service as a result from 12 minutes to 15 minutes causing further declines in patronage because that will mwan more 30 minute waits for buses when they are bunched. Then they will seek to cut it back at Foster Avenue truncating the northern portion of the B49 entirely.

If that wasn’t their ultimate plan, they would have no objections to rerouting it so it goes straight up Ocean Avenue to serve all the 6-story apartment houses there. That makes more sense than having two routes along Rogers which is a less densely populated than Ocean Avenue and has no north-south service north of Foster Avenue.

The Cobalt Devil October 24, 2011 - 4:35 pm

Rerouting bus riders onto the subway ain’t a bad idea per se, if you have a subway option. Many parts of the city (and ALL of Staten Island) do not have that option. But I get your drift; the MTA has made it loud-and-clear that they want to get out of the bus business. A few sops to the SBS riders on Pelham Parkway and Second Ave notwithstanding, service in many parts of town has been horrendous for decades, and only got slightly worse with last year’s cutbacks. Waiting 20, 30, even 40 mins for a bus during rush hour has been par for the course on the Richmond Terrace route for as long as I can remember (early 1970s).

BrooklynBus October 24, 2011 - 8:15 pm

Of course it makes more sense from a management point of view to have customers use the subway wherever possible. But look at it this way, if the subway were a better option, those bus riders would be using the subway now. That’s why I am against the idea of purposely making riding buses as inconvenient as possible to force riders onto the subway and SBS buses which is the way the MTA is going. They are doing nothing to make local bus routes more convenient. To the contrary, with the recent cutbacks which will continue as soon as there is another budget crisis, buses are becoming more inconvenient to use. They could be cultivating ridership by improving bus connections instead of severing them.

Alon Levy October 24, 2011 - 10:54 pm

The issue is that it’s a good thing to redirect the bus system to feed rail. At least it’s true in general; New York’s bus system seems pretty subway-oriented to me, especially in Queens.

BrooklynBus October 25, 2011 - 12:10 pm

That’s one of the problems in Queens. If you are not going to the subway your trip can be quite inconvenient. The buses must supplement the subways as well as be useful on their own All the routes with high levels of service and patronage most of the day are multipurpose routes. routes that are primarily subway feeders are primarily utilized only in the rush hours.

ajedrez October 25, 2011 - 10:43 am

Extending the S53 to St. George makes no sense because it would be so circuitous.

Extending the S54 would definitely help (though a cheaper way might be to combine it with the S42), and it would increase ridership and make it cheaper to operate. However, that shouldn’t be the cure-all solution: Ultimately, the rail line is needed.

The Cobalt Devil October 25, 2011 - 11:33 am

A rail line is desired, but not necessarily needed if it ultimately does not go off the Island. Any rail that just mirrors the old North Shore line will only get riders to the ferry 10 mins faster than the Richmond Terrace bus will. You’d still have to hop the ferry to get off the Island, so billions of dollars on a rail line for 20,000 riders (tops) won’t be a huge plus.

IF the line were extended to NJ via a new Goethals and/or Bayonne Bridge, then it’s a new ballgame. Since I’m thinking that’ll happen about 75 years from now, so extending the S54 to St. George will at least take care of the crowded conditions and the horrendous wait times when buses are cancelled.

And yes, extending the S53 would be circuitous from its current Port Richmond terminal. But there’s really no reason why the S53 needs to go to Port Richmond in the first place. It can shoot straight down Broadway to Richmond Terrace and go east from there to the ferry terminal.

ajedrez May 3, 2012 - 11:45 pm

There’s still no point to that. Aside from the fact that Port Richmond Avenue is still a fairly busy shopping strp (just not as busy and not as upscale as it was back in the day), very few people are trying to get from Clove Road to the ferry to justify making Port Richmond riders trips harder.

jon October 24, 2011 - 3:40 pm

You don’t even need a smart phone at least according to the info above. You would just need to have text messaging.
In New Jersey, they don’t have the tracking set up yet, but they do have a system that will tell you the scheduled time of the next 3 or 4 buses. It works both with regular cell phones, text only, and smart phones, which will give you a few more buses.

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Christopher October 24, 2011 - 11:06 am

I used to live in a part of DC where the buses only were scheduled to come every 30 minutes on off peak and 20 minutes on peak. Having NextBus in DC was helpful for knowing whether I could hang out in my house for a few minutes instead of going out into the cold or whether to walk the mile to the Metro station. Or if I was headed somewhere like the airport. To know whether I should call a cab. The information was useful. Although I only had one bus nearby to choose from.

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Nathan October 24, 2011 - 10:22 am

I imagine one reason it’s not over budget is that it isn’t especially a new technology. Even Key West Transit, with its 6 bus lines (but really just 3) has it system wide with an interactive Google Map. Buses are only scheduled to run every 45 to 90 minutes, so I guess it’s even more important to know when the one you’re waiting for is going to arrive.

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Dan October 24, 2011 - 11:54 am

Can’t wait, I take the Q18 or Q102 when it’s handy. It’ll be nice to know instead of peering down the road.

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digamma October 24, 2011 - 12:32 pm

Would this be for all MTA-run buses in the five boroughs, or just those run by NYC Transit? The routes run by MTA Bus Co are behind NYCT in a few technological ways already and I worry that they’ll get screwed here again.

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Defel October 24, 2011 - 12:38 pm

They have had time displays at most of the bus stations in London for a bit now. It is a LED light. They are pretty accurate, sometimes off, as when arriving in 2 minutes is more like 5 to 7. But, you can make a decision if you want to hop into a store to pick up something real quick, without fearing you are going to miss the bus.

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Christopher October 24, 2011 - 1:36 pm

I wish they would add the LED displays INSIDE the buses like they do in SF and DC. In fact, I don’t understand why it’s not ADA required. It’s something that can be retrofitted too.

The stop LED displays are nice and they have them in Minneapolis and smaller ones at some stops in SF. (And maybe Chicago too. I haven’t ridden a bus in Chicago in 9 years.)

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SEAN October 24, 2011 - 2:50 pm

Christipher, Those LED displays aren’t required under the ADA, but once purchased they must be used as the law requires. Having said that, I share your sentiment.

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Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines October 25, 2011 - 9:00 am

[…] MTA Aiming to Go Live With Citywide Real-Time Bus Info in 18 Months (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

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Joe October 25, 2011 - 12:11 pm

CTA bus shelter signs (being installed now at 400 stops):

http://articles.chicagotribune.....tronic-bus

CTA bus and train tracker (open API): http://www.transitchicago.com/tracker/

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Someone January 19, 2013 - 4:04 pm

Um… it’s 3 months from there and we still don’t have BusTime in 3 boroughs.

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BusTime to hit Manhattan next, citywide by mid 2014 :: Second Ave. Sagas March 13, 2013 - 4:00 pm

[…] MTA’s goal of rolling out BusTime to all five boroughs by April of 2013 is still on schedule, the agency announced today. With all of the Bronx and Staten Island bus […]

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